Guest Post #3: Embracing the Unexpected in Iceland

We must travel in the direction of our fear. – John Berryman

Last year, as you may recall, Terra and I had the privilege of travelling through Iceland for just a few short days (read about it here). We were blown away by the proportion of the land, the generosity of the people, and, of course, the length of the Icelandic words. I mean, their longest word is “Vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymsluskúraútidyralyklakippuhringur”, meaning “a keychain ring for the outdoor key in a road workers shed”. #1 – That makes no sense, and #2, even if it did make sense, should it really require its own word? But I digress.

During our time in Iceland, we found ourselves thinking “David and Kirsten (great friends of ours) would love it here.” And sure enough, one year and one month later, they took an epic two-week journey in a camper van through Iceland. I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to ask them to contribute to our blog.

If you must know only one thing about David and Kirsten, know this: they were married on top of a mountain. I don’t mean something like “Friends, family…we’re all going to walk up this hill and make it look like we were married on a mountain.” I mean more like “You can come if you either 1) are trained in CPR, 2) play a critical role in the wedding, or 3) are a drone.”

D&K getting married

The reason I bring this up is because it encapsulates everything we love about them – they live lives of adventure, not fear. They also happen to be two of the most kind and generous people who, as an added bonus, are not at all averse to self-deprecating humor. These are our kind of people.

The post below about their Icelandic journey is beautiful because it reveals the way they view the world. When some people see limits or disappointment, they see possibilities. When some seek comfort, they seek adventure. When some are content to live small, they choose to live large. We are proud to call them some of our best friends as we all journey through life together. I have to admit, though, I’m curious as to how they managed to stuff a professional photographer in their bags.

I can almost ensure that this will make you want to book the next flight to Iceland. Just remember to take a deep breath if your best-laid plans don’t come to pass once you get there!

Embracing the Unexpected in Iceland

First off, thanks to Nate for the invitation to do a guest post on his blog.  Normally I’m the only one who reads my writing so this is a treat for me (though maybe not for his readers)!

For the better part of a year, my husband David and planned a two-week road trip in a camper van around Iceland.  It was to be our belated honeymoon (we were married in September 2015) and with our shared love of hiking, camping, and all things outdoors, everyone said that we’d love it.  Shortly before we left, in fact, it was Nate who said “If I had to choose just one place for you guys, it’d be Iceland.”

For all its booming tourism, Iceland remains a very wild place.  The country’s total population is only around 300,000, which means that there are more than twice as many sheep as there are people.  Iceland is said to have the highest density of waterfalls in the world.  In the Westfjords, rugged cliffs spill into the deep, icy waters of the Denmark Strait and remote villages sit nestled in the mountains, inaccessible by car for much of the year.  The north is characterized by vast, barren landscapes and areas of striking geothermal activity – geysers, pseudo-craters, and steaming fumaroles. In the east fjords lies the only remaining natural forest in the country, though in recent years Icelanders have planted trees in other parts of the country in the hopes of regaining forested land. Southern Iceland holds the main attractions for most visitors – powerful waterfalls, glaciated mountains, iceberg-filled waters, and the famed Golden Circle route. Everywhere there are moss-covered plains, jagged volcanic landscapes, the possibility of northern lights, and picturesque waterfalls plunging down mountainsides.  Sheep and horses graze freely in the mountains during the summer months, unrestrained by fences or property lines.  Outside of Reykjavik and Akureyri farms have names, not numbers, usually based on a geographic aspect of that farm.  The vast majority of Iceland’s interior is only accessible for a few months out of the year in 4×4 vehicles with burly tires and high clearance.  You can drive for hours on winding roads without seeing another soul – we did.

We wanted to visit Iceland to experience this wildness and remoteness for ourselves; and yet in the weeks leading up to the trip I did my best to fit the country into a neat little box.  I plotted precise waypoints of our route in Google Maps and color-coded them by day, downloaded a map of campgrounds to use offline, plotted the locations of gas stations and supermarkets, and bookmarked the Icelandic road and weather sites that everyone said to use.  I read guidebooks cover to cover.  I exchanged so many emails with Cozy Campers, the camper van rental company that we used, that I’m pretty sure they set up a separate mailbox for me.  I tried to plan for every continency and possibility.  I did so much research that by the time we boarded the plane I almost felt like I’d already been to Iceland (a phenomenon that I think is increasingly common in the age of Instagram, Facebook, travel blogging, and Twitter).  When I closed my eyes I could see the rainbow shimmering over Gullfoss, the prominent Westfjords jutting out into the sea, the friendly Icelandic horses dotting the hillsides, the ragged lava formations of Dimmuborgir and the milky steaming waters of the Blue Lagoon.

I wasn’t joking about the color-coded itinerary.

But almost immediately things started going wrong.  We arrived in Reykjavik tired, hungry, and sick with bad colds (which, not helped by the fact that daily temperatures were regularly close to freezing and our van had only modest climate control, would last through the first week and then devolve into sleepless nights of coughing fits for the rest of the trip).  Record-setting rain hit the south and southeast regions of Iceland, resulting in massive flooding and the death of forty sheep (☹), and we made the last-minute decision to travel in the opposite direction, which meant that we had to cancel two tours we’d already booked for the south coast.  One week into the trip, the above-mentioned weather destroyed part of the Ring Road in an area where there were no alternate routes and in order to get to the south coast we were forced to drive back around the entire northern half of the country.  The heater in the van stopped working, resulting in some very cold nights.  Another driver sideswiped our van on the road to Dyrholaey, triggering our first (and luckily, only) interaction with Icelandic police and a few stressful hours on the side of the road.  And those are just the ones that I remember.

Yet when I think back to the last two weeks, I don’t think of the things that went wrong.  I think of these moments.

  • When after ten minutes of haggling we successfully convinced the Icelandair check-in agents to let us take David’s duffel bag and backpack as carry-ons (they didn’t think they would fit on the plane) and then panicked because they didn’t fit on the plane.
  • That first hot sip of freshly brewed coffee at a café in Reykjavik after nearly twenty-four hours without sleep. CAFFEINE IS AMAZING.

Caffeine is amazing!

  • When we bought cold medicine at a pharmacy and then forgot it at the counter because we were so exhausted.
  • The first time I petted an Icelandic horse (we named it Remúladi in honor of the country’s ubiquitous hotdog condiment).

Icelandic horses

  • 70 mile-per-hour winds at the top of Saxholl Crater, so fierce that we couldn’t hold our cameras steady.
  • When we called Cozy Campers two times in four hours because we couldn’t quite believe that our rear-wheel-drive van was allowed to be on some of these rutted part-gravel-part-mud-part-river-15% grade mountain roads (it was).

Sketchy – check. Steep – check.

  • The shared sense of wordless wonder that we felt as we wove along the Westfjords and watched sunbeams break through a shattered gray sky and illuminate the dark massifs of the fjords.
  • The time we fled our campsite because we were convinced that if we remained parked behind the eerie shuttered guesthouse we’d be murdered in our sleep. Less than an hour later, we were navigating an 8-kilometer one-lane tunnel in the middle of the night.  We only had a few moments to try to figure out what we were supposed to do if a car came from the opposite direction (the answer, we found out shortly, was to immediately pull over onto a shoulder to avoid a head-on collision).
  • The night I couldn’t sleep and got out of the van to stretch my legs, only to gaze up at a sky alive with color and light (David thought I was being murdered by the way I was screaming at him to wake up).

  • The ridiculous sounds that would come out of our mouths every time we tried to say something in Icelandic (the solution around this problem was to pronounce the first two syllables of the word and then trail off into a vague, inaudible mumble).
  • The awkward first hot spring encounter at Myvatn where we stood outside of the changing rooms for ten minutes trying to figure out what we were supposed to do.
  • How the icebergs sparkled in the sunlight on the black sands of the aptly named Diamond Beach, mesmerizing us for hours.

  • When we decided to do all of our laundry on a day that never stopped raining, effectively turning our van into a steam room, then proceeded to drive for hours on rough gravel roads that caused socks and underwear to be constantly flung about in the van.
  • The hidden waterfall that spilled into a tiny gorge with moss-covered walls.

  • The night we parked behind a sketchy old fish packing factory for a late dinner of instant noodles, then had to toss it out because someone hadn’t washed the dish soap out of the bowls that morning (we made up for it by going to a restaurant in Akureyri the next morning and ordering the “Viking Breakfast,” which came with bacon, sausage, potatoes, eggs, homemade rye bread, fruit, and pancakes).
  • The old farmer who ushered us into the turf church on his property and welcomed us with broken English, a huge smile, and hearty back pats.

  • The wild Icelandic reindeer that walked out in the road in front of us in the east fjords and quickly disappeared into the misty hills above.
  • That time we forded a river (twice). I’m afraid of water and David doesn’t know how to swim, but somehow we survived.

  • How we developed obsessions with Icelandic candy (Buffs and Tritlar gummies) and stopped at every gas station to check for them.
  • When we decided to run up the stairs to the top of Skogafoss and gassed out a quarter of the way up, and the rest of the climb sucked.

  • When, after all of the mountain roads, hairpin turns, torrential rain and wind, and sheep crossings, the only damage to our camper van came from being sideswiped by another driver.
  • When we headed out on one of our last days to check out a museum but ended up taking a dirt road outside of Vik and spending several hours exploring caves, wandering ridgelines, and scrambling peaks with no names.

  • Eating breakfast in Reykjavik on our last day in Iceland (at the same restaurant we’d started our trip at), reminiscing about all of the amazing experiences we’d been blessed with.
  • It was HARDs to return our camper van. For two weeks it had been our home and our mode of transport, and by the end of the trip it felt like an extension of ourselves.

Were the waypoints on my map, the links I’d bookmarked, the guidebooks I’d read, and the blogs that I’d scoured helpful?  Sure.  Are they what I’ll remember when I think back on our time in Iceland?  Absolutely not.

I plan to excess in most areas of my life, partly because it’s my nature and partly because I fear the unknown.  Although I know better, both spiritually and pragmatically, the weakest part of me still believes in a direct correlation between the amount of planning and the likelihood of success.  If I plan for the worst, somehow, I can prevent it from happening.  What I know, however – what has been proven to me time and time again – is that one of the most valuable aspects of travel is the confrontation and overcoming of these fears.

Don’t get me wrong – a little planning can go a long way.  The trouble comes when you allow the planning to become the experience.

You can plan the route, the lodging, the restaurants, and the landmarks.  But there will always be that freak storm that prevents you from getting to your intended destination, or that windy mountain road that beckons to you off the main highway, or the delayed flight that makes you miss your connection, or the owner of that restaurant that invites you to his home for dinner the next night.  Don’t resent it.  Don’t fight it.  Don’t be afraid of it.  Embrace it.

Traveling is a pastime that is innately difficult to control and in which it is incredibly easy, at least for me, to give in to the fear of the unknown; and in my soul I know that’s part of why I love it so much.  Because despite my fear-filled nature (or because of it) I know that it’s important to leave yourself open to the uncertainty, the fluctuations, the obstacles, the unexpected.  That it’s important to make the conscious decision to actively seek out the unknown and take a chance on something, someone, someplace…or yourself.

So much of the world is charted and mapped.  So find a place, either literally or figuratively, in which you can wander without knowing the destination or whether a single other person has ever been there before.  This act, the act of stepping into the not knowing, is so often the first part of an unforgettable experience.  Sometimes it is the experience.

Often we seek out adventure to escape life; but life is the adventure!